Fugitive variations: Philippe Garrel’s elliptical cinema of a life

For more than 50 years, the French director Philippe Garrel has condensed, refracted and reimagined the highs and lows of his life on film – from his drug-fuelled relationship with the German singer Nico, in 1979’s L’Enfant secret, to his love affair with a much younger woman in this year’s Cannes title Lover for a Day.

Cristina Álvarez López , Adrian Martin

Originally published as Fugitive Pieces in our July 2017 issue

Philippe Garrel, master of minimalism

Philippe Garrel, master of minimalism
Credit: Nicolas Guerin/Contour by Getty Images

Shot one: a sullen, teenage boy (Pascal Roy) eats his breakfast against a featureless white wall. Two faceless shapes in the foreground, the boy’s parents, prattle on. The boy suddenly exits, leaving the frame empty. Shot two: another blank space, a nondescript column and wall on a street; the boy enters the frame. Shot three: another concerned parent, inquiring about the whereabouts of her missing daughter. Shot four: a view down a Parisian boulevard, as this girl (Christiane Pérez) meets up with the boy. The camera slowly pulls back as they walk towards the camera.

As incredible as it seems, Philippe Garrel, at the precocious age of 16, had already sketched most of the now familiar elements of his cinematic style in the opening shots of his first film, the 15-minute Les Enfants désaccordés (1964). Everyday banality; locations leached of identifying marks; the rhythmic alternation of entries and exits from static images; the fondness for lyrical ‘walk and talk’ scenes.

Les Enfants désaccordés (1964)

Les Enfants désaccordés (1964)

But these disaffected runaways are headed somewhere mysterious, exotic, enchanted. “I don’t really know where they went,” commented Garrel in 1968. “I filmed something abstract, a kind of chateau with nude guys hanging around… When I watch it today, I find it captures exactly what was happening to our generation: completely alienated from consumer society, we needed to break away.”

 

The dandy of 68

This central situation of an impulsive, anarchic flight from society, driven by the idealism of romantic love, will remain a constant in Garrel’s cinema. Les Enfants désaccordés was screened on French television and, in an introductory chat with Garrel, the presenter found him to be a snobbish dandy: “Your collar, your long hair…”

The dandy label would stick to Garrel for a long time; indeed, Sally Shafto’s informative 2007 book on the experimental filmmakers known as the ‘Zanzibar’ group refers in its title to the “Dandies of May 1968”. By that year, Garrel was all of 20 and, thanks to the heiress benefactor Sylvina Boissonnas, able to realise an ambitious series of relatively luxuriant features, including Le Révélateur (1968) and The Virgin’s Bed (1969). He had not wasted the time in between: further shorts, work for television magazine programmes, and a freewheeling debut feature, Marie pour mémoire (1967).

Le Révélateur (1968)

Le Révélateur (1968)

As for the political events of May 68, Garrel participated at the barricades and helped assemble a fragment of avant-garde reportage, Actua 1 (long thought lost but rediscovered in 2014). Regular Lovers (2004) revisits, in a fictional recreation, that experience, and also shows what followed: not conventional militancy, but another, more countercultural type of resistance. Like the heroes of his early work, Garrel embraced poetry, flamboyance, travel, love, music, drugs and eventually an increasingly marginalised ‘cult’ reputation.

The first major period in Garrel’s career lasts from 1964-79. The best films of these years reveal the extreme tendencies of his approach. In The Inner Scar (1971), long tracking shots, staged in the landscapes of several countries, record richly coloured, painterly tableaux in which figures in archaic outfits (Pierre Clémenti, the singer Nico who had become Garrel’s partner, and the director himself) strike romantic poses, utter enigmatic lines and enact a tortuous choreography of attraction and repulsion. The connectives of plot disappear in favour of psychodramatic moments and ritual actions charged with mythological symbolism.

Les Hautes Solitudes (1974)

Les Hautes Solitudes (1974)

Les Hautes Solitudes (1974), on the other hand, reflects drastically altered material circumstances: living in near poverty, sharing a drug habit with Nico, shooting silent footage on leftover black-and-white stock, Garrel redefines cinematic minimalism at ground zero. And yet no one receptive to the mute power of the images of Jean Seberg, as she cryptically improvises for Garrel’s camera, can ever forget this movie.

 

The ‘return to fiction’

By 1979, Garrel had kicked drugs, ended his relationship with Nico and, with script assistance from Annette Wademant (collaborator of Max Ophuls and Jacques Becker), initiated a project of self-renewal: L’Enfant secret. He spoke of it as picking up where Les Enfants désaccordées had left off – telling, with necessary artistic licence, the story of his life. But he had to wait three years to have enough money to retrieve it from the lab, delaying its public unveiling. L’Enfant secret was a revelation, and remains so today: a film so painfully intimate, so close to the fluxes and flows of the unconscious mind, that spectators can feel like they are dreaming it into existence.

L'enfant secret (1979)

L'enfant secret (1979)

In a critics’ slogan of the time, Garrel had staged his personal ‘return to fiction’. From that point on, each new film, step by step, would explore – and slowly master – another aspect of cinematic narrative: the plotting of time, the direction of actors, the crafting of dialogue, and the formation of a unique mise en scène (he shoots, for example, in the strict linear chronology of the script). He would even try his hand at what he described as a B movie: Liberté, la nuit (1984), set during the Algerian War. But there is no mistaking it for a Michael Mann or even a Jean-Pierre Melville special: the use of ellipsis, the raw edges and the general air of hushed minimalism make it uniquely Garrelian.

Garrel’s audience would remain small but loyal throughout the 80s; wider acclaim eluded him until J’entends plus la guitare (1991). His other masterpiece of these transitional years is Emergency Kisses (Les Baisers de secours, 1989). It has ostensibly the slightest premise of all his plots – a filmmaker (Garrel) goes on vacation with his actor wife (Brigitte Sy) and their young son (Louis Garrel), to heal the rift caused by his casting of another woman as his latest leading lady. But its lyrical fusion of music (by Barney Wilen) and image, its razor-sharp view of ‘love’s malady’, and its seeming air of home-movie intimacy (in fact, carefully staged) are indelible.

Emergency Kisses (Les Baisers de secours, 1989)

Emergency Kisses (Les Baisers de secours, 1989)

The bare facts of Garrel’s biography and the key figures in his life – his wives (Sy and Caroline Deruas), parents (especially his father, Maurice), children (Louis and Esther) – fill his films, to varying extents and in diverse ways, from L’Enfant secret onwards. Yet it is upon this canvas, angled slightly differently each time, that Garrel works increasingly novelistic variations.

The Birth of Love (1993), for instance, tackles certain recurrent themes in Garrel’s filmography, but presents them in the more classical form of a dichotomy: two friends with different trajectories and desires. Paul (Lou Castel) is a married actor who feels increasingly oppressed by family life, and is drawn to younger lovers. Marcus (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a writer seeking reconciliation with his wife, Hélène (Dominique Reymond), who has abandoned him for another man. The film negotiates these two forces: on one hand, the intensity of first encounters, the renewed experience of love, the openness of what is yet to be discovered; and, on the other hand, the weight of promises and sacrifices accumulated down the years, the responsibilities of marriage, family, children.

 

Late post-realism

This novelistic tendency in Garrel’s work is given a new spin in his most recent films. This is largely due to a voiceover narration that, even if sparse, recounts the story, linking events and filling gaps. But do not expect any kind of realism. In A Burning Hot Summer (2011), one of the central characters, Paul (Jérôme Robart), narrates the story of his best friend, Frédéric (Louis Garrel), offering commentary on even those incidents he has not witnessed. For In the Shadow of Women (2015) the narration is more ironic, giving the film its surprising tone as an astute comedy of errors.

J'entends plus la guitare (1991)

J'entends plus la guitare (1991)

Voiceover has not, however, made Garrel any less fond of ellipsis. In fact, his latest projects seem to be arriving at an extreme narrative purification, as if to achieve the bare bones of a film.

J’entends plus la guitare, although situated at the beginning of Garrel’s second major career phase, is where he takes his novelistic ambition furthest. Dedicated to Nico (who died three years previously), the film covers two decades. It starts with Gérard (Benoît Régent) and Marianne (Johanna ter Steege) in Positano, Italy, where Garrel and Nico lived at the end of the 60s with Frédéric Pardo and Tina Aumont (the latter relationship is the basis for A Burning Hot Summer), and tracks their on-off relationship until Marianne’s sudden accidental death. The film also portrays the encounter and first years between Gérard and Aline (Brigitte Sy), who helps him quit drugs and has a child with him. The intense scene of encounter between Marianne and Aline is a summit of Garrel’s cinema.

Months, even years, pass between each incident depicted in J’entends plus la guitare, without any specific indication of the time elapsed. In one exchange between Gérard and Marianne, she introduces him to heroin; in the next scene, he has already developed a serious habit. The first conversation between Gérard and Aline is followed by a glimpse of their child, already born. Meetings (or reunions) and separations, happiness and crisis, succeed each other brutally, with nothing in between.

The Birth of Love (1993)

The Birth of Love (1993)

Verisimilitude does not interest Garrel. He never bothers to indicate the passing of time by altering the physical appearance of his actors; nor does he ask them to imitate the gestures or expressions of the real-life people on which their characters are based. Sometimes he will ask the same actor to repeat a role over several films – but seeing that Anne Wiazemsky (in L’Enfant secret and Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights…, 1985) and Johanna ter Steege (in J’entends plus and Le Coeur fantôme, 1996), very different ‘types’, are both called upon to incarnate Nico, ‘likeness’ is hardly his casting principle. Rather, what defines the characters in Garrel’s films are the forceful events they experience. These same events are repeatedly evoked across his films, but in changing configurations.

The discovery of a ‘secret child’ (L’Enfant secret, J’entends plus la guitare), the failed or successful suicide attempts (Les Hautes Solitudes; the short Rue Fontaine, 1984; Night Wind, 1999; Frontier of Dawn, 2007), May ’68 (at the core of Regular Lovers but repeatedly referenced in many others), electroshock therapy (L’Enfant secret, Frontier of Dawn), the inaugural infidelity of the female partner (Emergency Kisses; J’entends plus la guitare; The Birth of Love; Regular Lovers; A Burning Hot Summer; Jealousy, 2013; In the Shadow of Women), the birth of a child (J’entends plus la guitare, The Birth of Love, Frontier of Dawn, A Burning Hot Summer, Jealousy). It is the traumatic or joyful mark left by those events in the memory of the filmmaker that dictates their reappearance from film to film, as if the emotion associated with them compelled their depiction.

For Garrel, the incorporation of elements from his own life is not just a matter of literal fidelity. Rather, there are multiple experiences in the mix, split or condensed, refracted or reimagined. Interwoven, also, are artistic sources of inspiration – such as Godard’s Le Mépris (1963) – as well as details drawn from the lives of friends and collaborators. It is rarely a matter of simple transposition and repetition, but of a careful reworking and expansion. Ideas may begin in the personal realm and carry a sting of intimate truth but, thanks to their creative treatment, go far beyond that.

Regular Lovers (Les amants réguliers, 2004)

Regular Lovers (Les amants réguliers, 2004)

Some of these recurring events are undeniably spectacular, but mostly Garrel’s films relate typical, even mundane situations of meeting and parting, work and love, birth and death. Moments shared in bedrooms and toilets, family conversations at the kitchen table, walks in streets, first looks and kisses, the embrace after a long anticipated reconciliation, the close-ups on intertwined hands or on faces: these express the greatest turmoil with the smallest gesture.

Such are the types of scenes, which he frequently refers to as “universal”, that fill Garrel’s cinema. He cherishes these moments and gives them an unusual emphasis, treating them with care, building and rebuilding them in different variations from film to film. Taken as a whole, Garrel’s body of work is a passionate ode to the lasting primacy and significance of the private sphere in our daily lives. 

  • Sight & Sound: the July 2017 issue

    Sight & Sound: the July 2017 issue

    Edgar Wright talks Baby Driver with Mark Kermode, plus the best of Cannes, Bong Joonho’s Okja, Philippe Garrel and 50 years of queer British...

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